Cover image for Mies in Berlin
Mies in Berlin
Riley, Terence.
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Publication Information:
New York, NY : Museum of Modern Art, [2001]

Physical Description:
392 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm
General Note:
Exhibition held June 21-Sept. 11, 2001 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, N.Y.
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Central Library NA1088.M65 A4 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This in-depth look at Mies van der Rohe's early career is the first to examine the architect's work in Europe in terms of specific historical and cultural context, rather than the more abstract and formal arguments of the International Style. While earlier studies have described a fundamental break between Mies's neo-classical work prior to 1919 and the more avant-garde work of the 1920s, recent research demonstrates that the transformation was much more gradual. Here 11 scholars and architectural historians explore particular aspects of Mies's work, together shedding new light on the continual interplay of tradition and innovation, nature and abstraction, in the evolution of his design theories and methods. With a wealth of photographs and drawings, many not previously published, this book conveys for the first time the dynamic intellectual ferment of this formative period in the life of one of architecture's towering figures. Published to accompany a groundbreaking 2001 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.



Chapter One Making History: Mies van der Rohe and The Museum of Modern Art TERENCE RILEY The Museum of Modern Art played a near exclusive role in shaping popular and critical understanding of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's architecture for sixty years, from the 1932 "International Style" exhibition to the 1986 posthumous retrospective honoring the centennial of his birth. The authoritative role assumed by the museum, a virtual monopoly by mutual consent, is inversely proportional to Mies's diffidence about appearing as a salesman for his own architecture. Furthermore, Mies's reputation for being aloof and inaccessible might account for the fact that in 1947 there were very few writings by him and even fewer about him.     A survey of the publications that followed the 1947 retrospective of the architect's work at the Museum, ten years after Mies's emigration to the United States, affirms the success of both Mies, the designer of the exhibition, and Philip Johnson, the author of the exhibition's publication, in their respective tasks. The exhibition itself was widely covered in the media, from professional journals such as Architectural Record and Architectural Forum to general-circulation magazines such as The New Yorker and Town and Country . A smaller revolution might be seen in the exhibition design: its distinctive minimalist character and overscaled photomurals were frequently imitated in later exhibitions at the Museum, as well as at other museums around the world. The most enduring of all the Mies histories, Johnson's 1947 book is the principal source of virtually all of what might be called the common knowledge of Mies's life, work, and beliefs. Not the least of its contributions to the professional and public awareness of Mies is Johnson's quotation of the architect's "personal motto: less is more"--words that have passed into near universal use.     If the book has assumed an outsized authority in the architect's bibliography, its uniqueness must be underscored. Until that time, not a single book, in any language, had been devoted to the architect's then four decades of work. Published in three editions and translated into both Spanish and German, Johnson's book has been in print nearly continuously for over a half a century. Inasmuch, the seminal exhibition of 1947 serves as the lens through which this essay looks at the evolution of MoMA's representation of the architect, and at the nature of that representation in light of research available today.     Johnson's and Mies's efforts were complementary but not necessarily equivalent to one another. Whereas Johnson's book aspired to a traditional art-historical narrative, Mies's "text"--though not a text in the traditional sense--had its own message. The design can be "read" to discern his intentions: his attention to detail is famous and his experience as an exhibition designer was extensive. In 1928 he had put his thoughts about exhibitions into writing, declaring that they "must be demonstrations of leading forces" and "bring about a revolution in our thinking." A wall label in the exhibition confirms his role: "This exhibition, the first comprehensive retrospective showing of the work of Mies van der Rohe, is also the architect's latest design. He is responsible for the nature of the display, its plan, the appearance of the room in which you stand." Notwithstanding, there were logistical limitations on the material that could be shown; the vast majority of Mies's drawings were still in Germany, and were less accessible to the Museum than various kinds of photographic material--negatives, studio photographs, and copy prints. But Mies used this material to great advantage, and perhaps to better effect than the drawings themselves would have had. Some of the images were greatly enlarged, recalling the scale of his oversized renderings of the 1920s. Ada Louise Huxtable, who was a curatorial assistant on the exhibition (and later the architecture critic for the New York Times ), commented at the time, "Using a new approach to the display of architecture, the photographs shown will be very large (the largest 20' x 14') and so arranged that they can be viewed from a distance to give the effect of actual buildings."     As a whole, Herbert Matter's photographs of Mies's installation (frontispiece) show a remarkable resemblance to the collage perspectives of Mies's project for a Museum for a Small City (1942), which were included in the exhibition (fig. 1). Within the existing gallery space, an area of roughly seventy by seventy feet, Mies designed a configuration of four freestanding partitions arranged in a pinwheel fashion (fig. 2). To one side of each of these partitions he attached a large photomural, edge to edge and floor to ceiling, so that it appeared to float in space, like the images of Picasso's Guernica (1937) in the Museum for a Small City collages. Mies also used groupings of the furniture he had designed for the German Pavilion, Barcelona (1928-29), and the Tugendhat House, Brno (1928-30), to further delineate the space, much as he had in the projects on display.     Mies's intentions are well captured in photographs of the installation, particularly those by the American designer Charles Eames. In one photo Mies's furniture in the gallery appears before the photomurals of the Tugendhat House and the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project (1921), so that the furniture in the gallery is superimposed over that in the Tugendhat photomural, and over the visitors passing between. The perspectival spaces of the photomurals meld with that of Eames's photograph (fig. 3).     While Johnson's essay is divided into four chronological segments, Mies's design reflected no chronological or thematic narrative. The viewer would have had to glean any such references from the project titles, and from the abbreviated project descriptions discreetly placed next to the projects. The title of the exhibition--simply Mies van der Rohe --had no bracketing dates or other modifiers, and there were no extensive wall texts. As much as Johnson's essay was to be read, Mies's installation design was a visual experience. The photography and perspective renderings favored an eyelevel view; there were no axonometric drawings and only four plans and elevations. Also, with two entrances, Mies's pinwheel plan for the gallery had no particular direction to its circulation.     The earliest work Mies chose for the exhibition was the Kröller-Müller Villa Project (1912-13), the show's sole example of his dozen or so more "traditional" projects from before or soon after World War I. The most recent was his ongoing work for the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), in Chicago. Framed by these were two dozen projects, evenly divided between those completed before and after Mies's emigration, even though the former represented thirty years of work and the latter ten.     While this might indicate that the architect favored his newer work, the placement of the projects was subtler. All four of the freestanding photomurals and three others affixed to the outer walls represented European works. Balancing this dominance were five models of American projects designed in the decade since Mies had emigrated, interspersed within the pinwheel plan: the Resor House, the Farnsworth House, the Drive-In Restaurant, the Group of Court-Houses, and the Library and Administration Building for IIT. A full-scale mock-up of the corner detail planned for the Library and Administration Building was also included.     The less historical dimension introduced by the lack of a chronological narrative in Mies's exhibition design was reinforced by his use of new photographic prints of his work, in standard formats. The effective "newness" of all the material in the exhibition is evident in the installation photographs; no wear and tear distinguished the older projects from the newest. The four principal photomurals, on the freestanding partitions, featured two unbuilt projects from the first half of the 1920s--the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper Project of 1921 and the Glass Skyscraper Project of 1922--and two later, realized projects: the Monument to the November Revolution (1926) and the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. Three more projects were also distinguished by the photomural presentation, although they were hung less prominently, on the gallery's outer walls: the Concrete Office Building Project (1923), the Tugendhat House, and the Mountain House Studies (c. 1934)--one of Mies's designs for a house for himself, this one on a site in the Alps (1933).     As mentioned, the exhibition had two entrances. Opposite one entrance, two-thirds of the way across the gallery, the partition with the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper photomural, seen in the Eames photograph in fig. 3, loomed before the visitor. This prominent display seems to confirm that, twenty-five years later, Mies continued to cherish this groundbreaking work, despite his younger critics' resistance to what they considered its residual Expressionism. The other entrance was in practice the principal entrance, and was marked by the exhibition's title, so that Mies's selection facing it--placed on the opposite side of the room, and framed by the freestanding partitions--held one of the most important places in the exhibition. Of all the messages that might be discerned from Mies's installation design, the central position, evident in Matter's photograph, of his unbuilt and relatively unheralded Mountain House is the least expected.     Part of Mies's task in organizing the exhibition, of course, was to exclude certain works, if only through limitations of space. Of this kind of editing, little can be said that isn't speculative, but some of his exclusions are notable, even curious. Whereas Johnson, in his essay, devotes considerable attention to Mies's role in planning the Weissenhof Housing Colony Master Plan in Stuttgart (1925-27) and designing the most prominently located apartment house there, Mies omitted both from the exhibition. In fact he showed few large-scale works other than the skyscraper designs. The Urban Design Proposal for Alexanderplatz, Berlin (1929), the office buildings for Berlin and Stuttgart, the Reichsbank competition for Berlin (1933), the Administration Building for the Verseidag Silk Weaving Mills, Krefeld (1937-38)--all illustrated in Johnson's book--were not in the exhibition.     Mies's exclusion of his work prior to World War I (with the exception of the Kröller-Müller Villa) and his more traditional projects up until 1924 reflects a more systematic revision of his career. Between the end of the war and the mid-1920s, Mies turned away from the overt neoclassical influence of his former employer Peter Behrens, seeking to express the fundamental cultural shift created in the wake of the collapse of the German Empire. Not only did he radically reorient his architecture during these years, he took a new name (conjoining his mother's name with his father's to become Ludwig Miës van der Rohe) and adopted a new life as a socially unconventional bachelor-artist, distancing himself from his wife and children, and eventually settling into a permanent estrangement from them. In that same period he directed an assistant to discard his more traditional architectural drawings to make room in the atelier. In other words, he seems to have wedded the transformations he was going through to a negation of his past work and life.     Mies's radical personal and professional transformation of the first half of the 1920s was not the first time that he had reappraised his earlier work. His designs for his first four residential commissions, the Riehl, Perls, Kröller-Müller, and Werner houses, show that between 1907 and 1913 he was equally attracted to a stripped-down vernacular style and to the more classical approach evident in the work of his renowned employer Behrens. The enthusiastic reviews of the Riehl House would certainly have been an encouragement to the then twenty-year-old architect to pursue the former. However, two versions of the Perls House--the first with a steeply pitched roof like those of the Riehl and Werner houses, the second with a lower profile, more pronounced cornice, and more classical window and door openings--would indicate that Mies was not confirmed in his thinking at the time.     The resolution of these conflicting impulses appears to have been the Kröller-Müller Villa Project. In the coming years Mies would try to have this design Exhibited, and would have it illustrated--along with the second scheme for the Perls House--in the books accompanying both the 1932 "International Style" exhibition and the 1947 retrospective. Meanwhile he refrained from publishing his more frankly vernacular works after 1911. In this decision he greatly influenced public and professional perception of his earliest European work, which came to be known in the 1920s as traditional yet reflecting, not the essentially local and less lofty influences of the vernacular, but broad classical themes in the manner of the nineteenth-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Indeed, as Mies reoriented his practice in those years, his rejection of the vernacular appears as outright disdain. Often, the "context" buildings that he included around his models and other renderings of his visionary projects of the 1920s seem to be dark and misshapen caricatures of traditional German vernacular structures.     Meanwhile some of Mies's inclusions in the 1947 show need further mention as well, specifically the Resor House Project and the Group of Court-Houses, of the late 1930s. The design of the Resor House shown in the exhibition was significantly reworked from the design of 1938. The original design presented to the client is now little known, despite its status as Mies's first project for an American site. That same year the client decided not to build the house, and does not appear to have commissioned its redesign. The model and collage perspectives that Mies produced for the 1947 exhibition were an idealization of the actual project, with much of the actual Wyoming site eliminated. Johnson's description in the book reflects the original design of the house as "stretching across a river and resting on two stone bases." In the reworked design, though, the house appears not at all like a bridge but rests solidly on a plinth (fig. 4). Furthermore, the new collage, which includes a postcard-perfect view of the Teton Range looming beyond the glass facade (fig. 5), replaced an earlier collage that featured the actual view from the site, with scattered camplike structures in the foreground.     Mies's installation also included three collage perspectives of interior views (fig. 6). These images hung on the wall behind the model for the Group of Court-Houses, which a wall label referred to as "the furthest development of Mies's `court-house' scheme of 1931." This rather modest arrangement had an enormous effect on the perception of Mies's work, introducing the term "court-house" into what is now near universal usage in the lexicon of modern architecture and generating entire books devoted to the study of this typology. The relationship between the model, which had been produced as part of a student exercise at IIT, and the collages deserves scrutiny, however; none of the collages portrays any of the spaces in the model. Two of them correspond to a group of projects for Margarete Hubbe in Magdeburg in 1934-35, while the third reflects a type of studio problem that Mies regularly assigned to his students at the Bauhaus and at IIT, where he taught in 1930-33 and 1938-58 respectively. George Danforth, one of Mies's students and later his successor as head of the Department of Architecture at IIT, confirms that all of the court-house material in the exhibition was made by himself and other students at the school.     Mies's reworking of older designs, and his production of new collages from historical material, have caused confusion in interpretations by Johnson and by Mies's other chroniclers. Yet his actions are far from unique. Less interested in historiography than critical presentation, architects have refined older work for new exhibition and publication since Palladio's I Quattri Libri , in 1570. Even so, fully understanding these works means understanding what was not being represented: in the case of the Resor House, the real rather than the ideal landscape, in the case of the court-house, the longer history of its development through the work of Mies's students at the Bauhaus and IIT. * * * Mies's presentation of his work should be judged not as a historical account but as a project in itself. Like many of his best projects, it was collagelike in appearance--a product of studied excisions and additions that must be looked at both as a whole and in part. Inasmuch as the design had no linear narrative, it had no beginning and no end: Mies unsurprisingly focused on the evolving nature of his work, rather than on an accounting or summation.     Johnson, on the other hand, aspired to the authoritative narrative of traditional art history. I will not reprise his account in full here, but will summarize the points that have most influenced our perception of Mies, and particularly our understanding of his European work.     The first of Johnson's chapters covers Mies's earliest years, his professional formation, and his career until he was thirty-four. Johnson's account of Mies's childhood is notable in that, brief as it was, it was the first of any length to appear in print. Its influence can be seen in many other publications, all of which virtually repeat the outlines of Johnson's version.     Johnson's opening paragraph lays a foundation for his later interpretations of Mies's work of the 1940s. The architect's birthplace of Aachen is deemed significant: it was "the first capital of the Holy Roman Empire, had been the center of Western culture during the Early Middle Ages, and the Cathedral School, which Mies attended, had been founded by Charlemagne in the ninth century." Accordingly, for Johnson, Mies's childhood years bestowed upon him a specific heritage: a "medieval concept of order expressed in the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas," which "influenced his architectural philosophy fully as much as modern principles of functionalism and structural clarity." The book further outlines Mies's background as the son of a stonecutter and later as an apprentice tradesman, before moving into a more elaborate account of his first years in Berlin.     Here the text becomes more critical, as Johnson turns to the time Mies spent working for Behrens. Johnson positions the earliest of Mies's projects illustrated in the book, the Perls House, opposite his employer's Schröder House, both from 1911 (figs. 7, 8). Through Behrens, Johnson links Mies to Schinkel: "Mies at the age of twenty-five had become as accomplished a designer in the Schinkel tradition as his teacher [Behrens]." In fact Johnson--like Paul Westheim twenty years earlier, in the first published essay devoted to Mies's work--interprets all of the prewar projects illustrated in terms of Schinkel's "romantic" classicism, rather than of his own initial reference to any medieval concept of order.     Johnson's efforts to present Mies's early work faced at best lukewarm endorsement from Mies. In the case of the Riehl House, with its more vernacular, less Schinkelesque profile, Mies apparently expressed outright disapproval: Johnson writes in the book's foreword, "Mies considers the Riehl House too uncharacteristic to publish." Mies's first design for the Perls House, which was among those discarded in the mid-1920s, would no doubt also have been "too uncharacteristic" for Johnson's book. Copies of the drawings filed with the Zehlendorf building department show that it, too, had a steeply pitched roof reminiscent of Heinrich Tessenow's neovernacular buildings at Hellerau (figs. 9, 10). Indeed, the lower roofline and many of the other more classical elements of the Perls House were sketched over the finished drawings at the building department in Mies's own hand, suggesting that those elements were added late in the process.     Johnson closes his history of Mies's early career with the flat-roofed, Schinkelesque Kempner House (1919), of which he observes, "This was Mies's last Romantic design." He seems to have been aware that this was incorrect, but it was a position that Mies endorsed, at least tacitly, as it served to draw a polemical line between his work of the teens and his work of the 1920s. Johnson's second chapter, which covers the years 1919-25, diverges from the first in several aspects, the most important of which is the historical method: where the first chapter follows what might be called a "vertical" line of thinking, the second is "horizontal" in framework, its references being contemporary and much broader than architecture alone. The text cites the positive influence of De Stijl, Russian Constructivism, Suprematism, and Dadaism--and the negative influence of Expressionism--in the fields of architecture, film, painting, and sculpture, as well as Mies's role in promoting them through his directing and financing of the avant-garde journal G .     The illustrations for this chapter are devoted exclusively to five startlingly original projects that Mies designed between 1921 and 1924: the Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper, the Glass Skyscraper, the Concrete Country House, the Concrete Office Building, and the Brick Country House. Johnson's estimation is unambiguous: "Mies's position as a pioneer rests on these five projects." The fact of Mies's watershed moment is beyond question, although Johnson goes farther in defining it than previous accounts had done--including his own of 1932.     To justify his characterization of the five projects, Johnson needed not only to create a starting point for Mies's period of innovation--the Kempner House of 1919, purportedly the last "Romantic" design--but an endpoint as well. The opening paragraph of the third chapter did just that: "By 1925 the Weimar Republic was no longer revolutionary; hopes for a new and better world had dimmed. The period of experimental architectural projects was drawing to a close and lot the first time since the war buildings were actually under construction." (Continues...) Excerpted from MIES IN BERLIN by TERENCE RILEY BARRY BERGDOLL. Copyright © 2001 by The Museum of Modern Art. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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